Today we welcome author Christopher Beats. Cruel Numbers releases on April 30, 2012.
Christopher Beats has been exiled to the asphalt prison of South Florida for crimes against philosophy. Before his exile he taught history for several institutions around the state. He shares his exile with a gluttonous dog, a blind cat, and the only two humans who can tolerate him. He spends his days contemplating infinity and writing fiction.
Ideas in Action
by Christopher Beats
My historical view is focused on ideology. After several years of teaching, this paradigm has saturated my consciousness and dripped into my writing. When I dream of other time periods and worlds, they inevitably become blood-soaked arenas where philosophies hotly contest each other. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a prominent German thinker of the late 18th century, viewed history as a contest between two opposing ideas. Every period of history has a “winner,” which would proceed to the next era. This winner would divide into two opposing ideas or be challenged by a new one. As you can imagine, this was a popular interpretation here in America during the Cold War.
If history is about ideas, why should alternate history be any different? Ideas have power. They shape societies and behavior. The 19th century was a Baby Boom of ideologies. Many different ideas came into being, some of them with negative connotations today. Racism and cultural chauvinism were normal in the 1800s. Cultural chauvinism has always been pretty common. The idea that your own nation or people are superior can be found in almost every period of history. Racism, on the other hand—with a big R—was new, and it took this idea to a whole new level. It was a philosophy (that’s right, I said philosophy) that developed in the 1800s as an effort to explain how the world worked. People were proud to call themselves ‘Racists.’ They believed that different races were like different species of animal occupying the same ecological niche. Like two species battling it out, human groups would inevitably turn on one another. This philosophy was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher who spectacularly misinterpreted Darwin (Darwin actually argued that evolution made men more cooperative, since it created civilization, a point largely ignored by Spencer). Spencer’s theory, called Social Darwinism, was used to justify the stratification of society as well as races. Factory workers were poor because they’d failed to compete as well as the plutocrats above them. England was triumphant because evolution had made them so.
Spencer’s ideas sound harsh to us, but like Racism, they were accepted by many respected figures of the day, including Teddy Roosevelt. Racism and Social Darwinism were a tidy explanation for the harsh truths of realpolitick. Nations—even ‘good’ ones—do horrible things. Social Darwinism justified this behavior. Warlike nations—and races—weren’t bullies. They were doing what came natural.
It’s important to understand that this theory of racial war wasn’t just about white vs. black. Obviously, people recognized that other folks had different skin colors. But in the 19th century, linguistic and ethnic differences were just as important. Jules Verne was so worried about Germans developing a sense of superiority that in 1879 he wrote The Begum’s Fortune. His villain, Professor Schultze, believes that Germans are the master race. Anyone living in our time would expect this to mean an attack on Jews. Yet Professor Schultze rants about Latins, a vague term for Mediterranean people that somehow included France. Like many real life Racists, Verne’s antagonist didn’t do his homework. The Franks who created France were related ethnically to the tribes that settled Germany. Verne, being French, was no doubt aware of this glaring inaccuracy, probably because he knew that many Racists were misusing history to justify political agendas.
For Schultze and the Racists he was modeled after, it wasn’t about skin color. It wasn’t Africa vs. Europe vs. Asia. It was about a person’s home country versus EVERYONE ELSE. It was about differences in language, outlook, and religion (protestant countries hated Catholic and vice versa). If the Irish were uncouth savages who needed to be taught the ways of civilization then England was justified in conquering them. The same applied to India and Africa. This attitude wasn’t just in Britain, either: it was also used to justify the latent prejudice which Poles, Italians, and Irish felt when they came to America, a country dominated by Anglo culture.
Professor Schultze is an example of how these beliefs can be used to stoke up a villain. But I didn’t tell you about Teddy Roosevelt’s beliefs because I want you to hate him. Far from it. I think Roosevelt is a fascinating individual. He’s on the list of people I’ll meet for coffee once my time machine is finished. But he was a man of his time and we have to understand that about him. These beliefs, as repugnant as they are, would likely show up in protagonists as much as antagonists.
Part of Steampunk’s lure is stepping back into another mindset, even when that mindset is unpleasant. Rather than shrinking from the uglier parts of the 19th century, Steampunk authors should embrace them. Anytime there is conflict—and these ideologies scream conflict—the story gets interesting. Gail Carriger’s protagonist, Alexia Tarabotti, is an excellent example. What would these books be if the heroine could go where she pleased and say whatever she liked without consequence? The Alaskan tundra challenged and defined Jack London’s characters. English society serves the same purpose for Alexia, offering a stark foil for her personality. Absent the rigid Victorian ethos, we would never get to know Alexia. The men around her, meanwhile, have to reconcile this strong-willed female with their worldview. The same environment that helps define Alexia also gives the male characters a chance for development. How will they reconcile a capable, headstrong woman with their worldview?
This doesn’t mean writers should feel constricted by historical reality. In a divergent timeline, things are different. That’s the point. But things should never be different without a reason. This is where understanding causal relationships is important. Causal relationships are what history is all about. Historians essentially spend their time trying to understand cause and effect. Writers can benefit from this. By understanding cause and effect, one can predict or explain why a society develops in the way it does, even a fictional one.
Feelings about women were very different, for instance, in the American West. Women pulled their weight around the farm. They were not expensive window dressing like their upper class counterparts in London or Boston. By being important members of the economy, women earned respect and afforded rights they wouldn’t have in the “civilized” east. They could even vote in some states.
It’s entirely possible for people to have rights they didn’t have in our reality. Those rights may even change from place to place. Your female inventor or African American ornithopter pilot don’t have to spend the whole book being shunned if it hurts the narrative. Just show how and why ideas in your timeline have evolved. This is another fun aspect of writing alternate history: alternate ideologies.
Explanations are important because nothing ruins a story like characters that are inexplicably modern in outlook. Take, for example, the main character in The Patriot, Benjamin Martin. Benjamin’s a Southern planter but, for some reason, all his workers are freemen. He doesn’t use slaves at all. This is a powerful statement that the filmmakers glossed over. I assume they found the topic of slavery uncomfortable. In one scene, Benjamin is kindly hidden by runaway slaves. So he must believe in emancipation. Why didn’t they say this? Why not show the reaction of the other planters? While he might be popular with slaves and former slaves, many of his neighbors should despise him. They would worry that he was ‘poisoning’ the minds of their slaves. Benjamin would have been a lone planter following his conscience—and facing ostracism as a result, making him a much more compelling character.
As authors, uncomfortable subjects should excite us, not deter us. Whatever you write, you will offend people. Just read ten lines of an internet message board if you don’t believe me. So don’t worry what a few outliers might think. The best books make people—including the writer—think. I’m not saying every story needs to have a moral. But the books which entertained me most also had me thinking long after I put them down. The Muggle-bashing in Harry Potter wasn’t a homily. It was a frank acknowledgement of how some people react to having power. Tolkien’s presentation of Sauron isn’t preachy. It’s a sublime meditation on the nature of evil. This enhances the story without resorting to an Aesop-style punch line. This is the role ideology should play in Steampunk: enhancing without hijacking. When done properly, it adds more than world-building. It adds depth, something every book can use.